On Friday, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees sat for their final meeting of the year. It went much like every other meeting of the board in 2018 — survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of former MSU doctor Larry Nassar publicly confronted both the Trustees and interim President John Engler over their broken promises and tone-deaf statements about the survivors; the majority of the Trustees continued to blindly support Engler; Engler refused to show the survivors even a modicum of care or consideration; and everyone left feeling more defeated than they had been just a few hours before.
This month, the frustration stemmed from two new revelations: The board’s announcement that its search for the new President of MSU would take place behind closed doors, and Engler’s decision to terminate the Healing Assistance Fund — which the board set aside a year ago, earmarking $10 million to provide mental health services to Nassar survivors.
Both decisions were gut punches to those survivors, as well as to all of the MSU students, faculty, and alumni who have been fighting for justice, accountability, and change ever since the news broke in late 2016 that the school had spent decades enabling the largest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
“A year ago, I stood in this board room with a gag over my mouth that read ‘Silenced’; a symbol of the way this University had silenced survivors at every turn,” Nassar survivor Morgan McCaul, who spoke at the meeting, said in a statement on Twitter. “The months that followed served as a ruthless introduction to the grim reality of institutional betrayal,”
Only one of board members offered even a modicum of dissent at the meeting: Brian Mosallam, a Democrat serving in his first term on the board, who has been the most outspoken — and often only — critic of Engler. Mosallam condemned the decision to shut down the Healing Assistance Fund, and expressed solidarity with the survivors who wanted to see it reinstated.
Amid his frustrations, however, Mosallam conveyed a sense of optimism.
“Hopefully, reinforcements are on their way here in January, so we’ll see how things shake out with the new trustees,” he said, as reported by Michigan Radio.
Those “reinforcements” that Mosallam was referring to are Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay, the two new trustees — both Democratic women — who were elected to the board by Michigan voters during the midterm elections in November. Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University are the only three colleges in the country which hold state-wide elections for its trustees or regents. At MSU, the trustees are elected to eight-year terms.
Both Scott and Tebay ran campaigns centered around restoring trust, integrity, and pride at Michigan State in a post-Nassar world, promising to bring accountability and transparency to the Board of Trustees.
Of course, that’s all much easier said than done. As Friday’s meeting showed, the relationship between the trustees and the MSU community is close to being fractured beyond repair. And the future makeup of the board was thrown into further disarray when Trustee George Perles, 84, abruptly resigned earlier this month.
Perles, a Democrat who had remained supportive of MSU leaders throughout the Nassar scandal, is a former MSU football coach and athletic director. In September, a lawsuit claimed that he covered up videotaped evidence of Nassar raping a student-athlete in 1992. (He denies this.) While Perles had been enduring some longstanding health issues, most expected that he would remain in his seat until January, so that the newly-elected Governor, Gretchen Whitmer (D) — an outspoken critic of Engler, who advocated for the entire MSU Board to resign during her campaign — could appoint his replacement. Now, Gov. Rick Snyder (R), will get to appoint the eighth board member.
Still, despite all of these challenges, Mosallam isn’t the only one who has high hopes that Scott and Tebay — who he considers “trailblazers” — can help change things at MSU for the better.
“I was extremely pleased that they were elected,” McCaul told ThinkProgress in a phone interview earlier this month. “I hope to see first and foremost a radical change in the transparency that the public receives from the board.”
What sets them apart
Scott and Tebay are not your average MSU trustees. Tebay is only 31 years old. She finished up her undergraduate degree at MSU just 10 years ago, and her graduate degree just about five years ago. She currently works as a Relationship Manager at United Way. She was inspired to run for the board after seeing how badly the current board responded to Nassar survivors. To her mind, the fact that she is a millennial, not far removed from her time on campus, promised to bring a much-needed perspective to leadership at the University.
And as she revealed during her campaign, she can relate to survivors on a personal level, too. When she was an undergraduate student at MSU, she was raped. McCaul, who met with Tebay early in her campaign, was incredibly moved by her willingness to share this part of her story.
“It was incredibly brave, and showed the courage we haven’t seen on the board,” McCaul said. “For her to do that, especially with strangers on the campaign trail, I think it speaks volumes to what she can do as a leader.”
Scott, meanwhile, has her own unique background. Scott became pregnant in the late 1990s when she was a 20-year-old undergraduate student at MSU. She was close to dropping out, but her sorority sisters and professors gave her the support she needed to continue her studies, graduate, and eventually go to law school.
Now, Scott owns her own law firm in Muskegon County. She does litigation in real property and business areas, family law, criminal defense, and social security.
“I don’t think, in sincerity, I don’t think I’d be where I am without MSU,” Scott told ThinkProgress earlier this month on a phone interview she squeezed in between court appearances.
Today, the son Scott had when she was a Spartan is an engineering major at MSU. She decided to run for the board in April, after attending a Trustees meeting where Engler publicly threatened Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar survivor who spoke at the meeting about Engler offering her a private settlement.
Scott and Tebay will double the number of women on the board, from two to four, and guarantee that Democrats will have control over the board (5-2, before Snyder’s appointment). Nevertheless, history tells us that party and gender are not the best indicators of how board members will vote. Democrats Perles and Joel Ferguson both stuck by the MSU administration throughout the Nassar fallout, as has Republican trustee Melanie Foster, who has a long-term working relationship with Engler.
The two women will replace a pair of high-profile board members, Brian Breslin and Mitch Lyons, both of whom opted to not run for reelection. Breslin, the chairman of the board, is a 67-year-old Republican who used to play basketball at MSU; the basketball arena on campus is named after his father. Lyons is a former MSU football player and NFL star. Both were staunch supporters of former MSU president Lou Anna Simon, and of Engler.
What really sets Scott and Tebay apart isn’t their gender or party. Rather, it’s their unique backgrounds, and the fact that they neither have deep ties to the athletic department nor are part of the big-time donor class at the university.
Plus, they seem genuinely committed to fighting for change.
“[Scott and Tebay] emphasize first and foremost that they are here to represent the community, that they need to listen to the community,” Natalie Rogers, the communications coordinator for Reclaim MSU, an alliance of students, staff, and faculty working for broad institutional and cultural change at MSU, told ThinkProgress. “Everything they talk about is so dramatically different from the way other Board of Trustee members regard their position.”
The challenges ahead
Even though their Trustee terms have not officially began, Scott and Tebay have wasted no time making their voices heard. They already signed onto a statement with Mosallam and fellow Democratic Trustee, Dianne Byrum, condemning Engler’s decision to close the Healing Assistance Fund, and have stressed that reinstating the fund is a top priority.
“We have to put it back in place. I want to make sure that as a community and an institution, that when we promise something, we stick by it,” Tebay told ThinkProgress.
“I think the human elements of the institution are the most important — and I think sometimes we put the name and the brand above the humanity,” she said.
Not every decision is going to seem quite so obvious, however. Take, for example, the board’s decision to hold the search for a new president behind closed doors. “It’s really frustrating, because the candidate we want as president is one that is willing to engage openly,” Rogers said.
For McCaul, it’s another disappointing yet unsurprising decision by the board — another broken promise when it comes to transparency and accountability.
But Mosallam told ThinkProgress in an email that he stands by the decision, and says that a search firm advised the board that this was the best route to take in order to attract the best candidates.
“I can understand the public’s frustration but we have controls in place in the form of a 19 member search committee with 15 non-board stakeholders, the former president of the University of Virginia who is also an MSU grad, and an independent search firm, all of who will be involved each step of the way,” he said.
Tebay is sympathetic to both sides, and sees it as the ultimate challenge to conduct a search that both yields the best candidate and keeps the public informed throughout the process.
“This is a test for the new board,” Tebay said. “Either we figure out a way to do this that keeps the community on board or we fail.”
Then, of course, is the other question: Will this new board have enough votes to oust Engler? Survivors have been calling for Engler to be fired or resign almost since the day he was appointed 11 months ago, after Simon was forced to resign due to scrutiny over her handling of the Nassar case. Over the summer, the board voted 6-2 to keep Engler in place; Mosallam and Byrum were the lone dissenters. Tebay and Scott both said during the campaign that they would vote to oust Engler.
It’s unlikely that the three other current Trustees will change their mind on Engler. Republican Dan Kelly — a former attorney who built a career defending schools that ignored allegations of sexual assault against children — has regularly reiterated his support of Engler. Ferguson has often praised the leadership and “tough guy” mentality of Engler. And Foster and Engler go way back — when he was Governor, Engler appointed Foster to the MSU Board of Trustees from 1991 to 1992 and to the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2004.
That only leaves four votes against Engler, leaving his fate in the hands of Snyder’s appointee. That’s not promising. So, Tebay and Scott are both focused on other actions they can take on January 1 to help move the campus forward.
Both stressed the importance of having a presence on campus, and of being accessible to students. They want to change a culture where it seems most of the board members are simply spoon-fed information from powerful donors. Instead, they want to go out and seek information from the very students and alumni their decisions will ultimately impact. They want to embrace difficult conversations, face challenges head on, and never be afraid to speak up.
“I am not going to be a quiet board member who doesn’t ask the hard questions or make the challenges that need to be made,” Scott said.”Whether that will ruffle feathers or not, my intent is to do what right.”
One big thing they have going for them? Scott and Tebay have each other. While they’re not precisely of the same mind on every issue, the time the two women spent on the campaign trail forged a mutual respect for each other.s work ethic, tenacity, and empathy. Now, facing a board that has been hostile to change and a community that is desperate for it, they plan to lean on one another while pushing the university, at long last, in the right direction.
“While we were campaigning, we really formed a bond. We know we have each others backs,” Tebay said. “It’s very helpful.”